Posted on January 22, 2012
So we finally managed to see War Horse and let me say at the outset that if you love horses, you might very well see past this film’s collosal shortcomings. It has other virtues. Shot on film, it is visually lush and intentionally evocative of 1940s and 50s moviemaking. There are a couple of genuine tear jerker moments. I knew going in that the film requires us to leave behind our modern skeptical, jaded sensibilities (as many Speilberg films require) and I have no problem with schmaltz (I’m the guy who watches Love Actually every Xmas, had a man crush on Hugh Grant, and defends Avatar — I can do schmatlz).
However, I left the theater scratching my head and asking “Why was this film made?” Its sentimentality is slathered on with far too heavy a hand, the John Williams score is painfully apparent, the characters are two-dimensional, the sets belabored (the family farmhouse looks like Hobbits should emerge from inside), and the plot utterably predictable. Either the acting was terrible or these are modern actors acting like actors of a bygone era and I just missed the exercise. It was, from my perspective, mostly cringe worthy. Somewhere in this very long 2 1/2 hour slog, I was secretly hoping that some of the main characters would perish and end the pain of seeing them on screen (not the horses, of course).
There are a handful of amazing shots — the calvary charge out of the hay field, the views over no-man’s land, the closing long shots. The scenes of the horseless riders leaping over the line of German machine gunners was original and moving. Speilberg is a master craftsman and his skill is very evident. The horses steal every scene and they exhibit considerably more acting skills than the human cast and by all accounts the handlers managed to get more engagement and presence from these horses than previous equine-centered films. The horse that mostly plays Joey (there was more than one horse actor for the role), the hero of the film, also played Seabiscuit, a far better film — this pony should get an Oscar.
It’s hard to argue against the core values of the film: unwavering loyalty, tenacity, courage. Those who argue that the film glosses over the horrors of the First World War might be a little unfair. Speilberg wasn’t making Saving Private Ryan here. It’s a horse and boy movie and the war is a backdrop, not the subject. I wanted to like this film and even as I write I realize I am trying to mine deeper for redeeeming qualities, but it’s just not a very good movie. It is one thing to evoke films for which we might feel nostalgia, but the goal should have been to doso in ways that work with a modern sensibility. It is the difference between building the 2012 Mini Cooper, with all of its stylish evocation of the 1960s origina but modern performancel, and making a Mini Cooper that is exactly like the original: cute, but too small, too underperforming, too unsafe. It would be curious, but ultimately not very appealing.
Such is War Horse.
People have been very much split over the play and now the film. Count me in the neigh camp
Sad to say, I agree with this review.
As a lifelong horseperson, in my opinion many of the horse and farm scenes were not well researched and did not accurately depict horse sense or common sense, both of which horse people and farmers have. One does not teach a horse to take the harness by shoving their own human head inside the collar to show the horse what to do so that the horse says “Eureka, I get it!’ and then mimics the human’s behaviour. If horse training was only so logical! Any horse person will tell you that horses don’t reason things out the way humans do.
And fields are not plowed up and down the slope, obviously because of erosion, which is exactly what happened to the planted crop when it rained – Hello! This is Farming Page 1. Yet later in the season they were somehow harvesting that same crop that had been washed away. And no farmer would charge straight at a large rock and risk damaging his plow or worse… silly silly.
I must also comment on the much lauded scene with the horse wrapped in barbed wire… A horse can and will die from having just one single strand of barbed wire wrapped around a leg – I know from finding a horse in this tragic situation – because he will thrash and the wire will only cut deeper without breaking and the horse will bleed out. So to have a horse galloping wildly, tangling wire tighter and tighter around itself in ever increasing amounts and thrashing around until it cannot even stand, and then to have just some deep scratches once cut free, is insultingly ridiculous.
Other examples flood my memory but these are so basic it made me wonder about the research that has gone into other Spielberg films I have accepted as based on fact and history. Spielberg, you had horse people on set with all the horses used in this film, why didn’t you ask a few of them if what you were showing was realistic? And people still farm, why not ask them how to plow a field? It ain’t rocket science.
I was seriously disappointed in this movie despite the fact that it did have some redeeming sections as mentioned in this review, but not enough to compensate for its obvious shortcomings.
Tens of thousands of horses died in that war, right alongside the human casualties, and this movie didn’t come close to honouring their terrible sacrifice.
After reading this to him, my husband said “if I could write well, this might’ve been my review, based on the trailer.”
But on a more serious note, well put. I think perhaps my favorite quality of your writing is that just as I start to imagine the thought process behind your writing, you often write about it. Here, as I began to notice the hammer and chisel, you mentioned your mining for redeeming qualities within the film. This is a great indicator of the honest writing! Something any reader can appreciate.
And as much as I can appreciate a good horse, I think I’ll forego this movie–at least in theaters–I think I’ll stick with Hugh Grant.
I must agree that this film has woeful shortcomings. Most of all, I agree with Kathy Smith, who is obviously much more of a horseperson than I, about the glaring lack of horse sense and just plain common sense at every turn. Even knowing this was a movie and that the credits would end by telling us no horses were harmed, I found it very difficult to watch the many scenes of horse torture – and that was even before the war started! I did like the young actor, but plowing a field with a magnificent Thoroughbred colt…? That moment when the horse drops to its knees might in real life have been the end of the horse. OK, the dad had PTSD from the Boer War, but still, I kept hoping the horse would kill him for his wicked plumb-ignorant scheme to imperil this horse’s life by such misuse. As the movie went on, I kept rooting for the horses to kill a few people, and can’t understand why we didn’t get to see them get in at least a few good kicks and bites, as would surely have happened under the circumstances. I also agree with Kathy about the barbed wire, though I only know of this anecdotally. In fact, once the horse has been brought into the hospital, wounds and all, he looks improbably perky. Still, lots to like – lush cinematography, those great scenes of the cavalry drill and the real charge – and I suppose the point of the movie, if there is one, is that this is what war does to people as well as horses, and it’s just that some of us see the evil of it more truly when it’s played out on innocent beings who have even less of a say in their destiny than the humans.